Ruan Pienaar: I could have won a European Rugby Champions Cup medal with Toulon but my heart is at Ulster
It was an attractive deal and had Ruan Pienaar actually signed on with French giants Toulon he would now be the owner of a winners’ medal from the European Champions Cup.
That would have sat well alongside his World Cup collection, having been victorious in 2007 and then, last month, when the bronze medal came his way from his third, and last, tournament.
And even though he should be due to make his 100th appearance for Ulster on Friday at Leinster — the RDS has notably not been a happy hunting ground — that milestone is surely small fry compared to having missed out on significantly adding to his medal collection.
Not for Pienaar, though, and he is unequivocal about having thrown everyone a curve ball two years ago by saying no to France and firmly nailing his colours to Ulster’s mast.
“I don’t regret having not gone to Toulon,” he says without hesitation.
“Yes, I could have won a European trophy but, at the end of the day, there are bigger things than that.
“I felt in my heart and my gut that I needed to stay here and I’m still happy with the decision I made.
“I’ve said all the time that I’m happy and I feel at home here and I didn’t want to force anything at that time,” the 31-year-old star player adds.
And with Pienaar, what you see is what you get. The Bloemfontein native is a man driven by his deeply held Christian beliefs and totally committed to his family — wife Monique, their three-year-old daughter Lemay and 16-month-old son Jean-Luc — as well as his all-consuming desire to play rugby.
There is no denying that he is a world class performer —with a laser-like pass and a match-winning ability to land kicks at goal from all ranges — but the South African has also felt a growing affinity to Ulster since arriving here in the autumn of 2010.
The place has got under his skin and he now genuinely feels a powerful bond with the country as well as his team-mates and the supporters.
“I still feel that I’ve got something to give to Ulster and it would be a dream come true for me to win something with them in the next season or two,” he says alluding to the fact his contract is due to expire in summer 2017.
His milestone 100th cap is looming large but, for him, it’s fundamentally the team and the performance that really matter even though hitting that century will be a special moment.
“I guess I never thought I’d play 100 games for Ulster the first time I signed here and I really didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I’ve done.
“To have come from South Africa and to be on the point of having played 100 times for another club is a big achievement and once it comes around I’ll be really grateful for the opportunity Ulster have given me and my family.”
Of course, there is more to him than the quietly-spoken and humble individual you encounter off the pitch. There is an inner steel to Pienaar along with a burning desire to keep playing and winning which has seen him tog out for Ulster and the Springboks in what have essentially been close to 12-month seasons for the last number of years.
He acknowledges his treadmill existence as being punishing for both himself and his family — his body has held up remarkably well but he did suffer a knee injury in September 2014 playing for the Boks — but representing the two teams that mean the most to him is what it’s all about.
“Performing well is the key for me, I’m competitive and I don’t like to lose or not play well,” he says, maintaining that Ulster can still win a trophy despite the several near misses they have had since his arrival has significantly helped to bring them close to lifting silverware again.
“I’m my own harshest critic and I’m really disappointed if I don’t perform well but as long as I’ve still got that drive to perform I’ll go on as long as I can.”
Pienaar wants to give his all for Ulster now that his international career is more than likely at an end. Not a bad way to be after arriving here five years ago, to join Johann Muller, and then wondering just what he had done.
“Yes, the old Ravenhill back then was a bit of an eye-opener. I was used to big stadiums and this was far from that,” he says smiling at the memory.
“But you know the atmosphere has always been as loud and as good as any 50,000-seater stadium.”
And Pienaar has added to that and now, at least, has a proper stadium to play at, not that it would really have mattered if the old ground were still with us. Pienaar and Ulster have grown close and there is no sign that their mutual respect is on the wane.
“I’ve enjoyed it all so far,” he says.